Friday, February 7, 2014

My take on "Other People's Views"

(Wow, been forever since I've written here…)

Just read this column in the New York Times, by David Brooks:

Brooks presents four situations and asks to what degree we should consider the views of others in making our decision. He later gives his own advice on these situations; let's see whether I agree with him.

1) Let’s say you’re turning 40 and you realize you want to leave accounting and become a hip-hop artist. People will say you’re having a pathetic midlife crisis, but should you do it anyway?

Brooks: First, the hip-hop artist question. Here it might be best to defer to public opinion. People tend to make poor decisions at moments of life transition, so at these moments, lean in the direction of respecting to the wisdom of the crowd. Have a midlife crisis, but in less stereotypical form.

Me: I think Brooks' analysis is far too superficial. "People tend to make poor decisions at moments of life transition": citation needed, for starters, but even if we grant the truth of that, it's such vague advice as to be unfollowable - should someone turning 40 stop taking risks in every facet of life until the transitional moment is safely in the rearview mirror? Surely we wouldn't say that. Turning 40 makes you look around and wonder; it doesn't make you incompetent. And it's different for everyone. The key thing we don't know here is what reason someone might have for making this decision. We don't know whether he's been honing his craft for 10 years, has researched the market and has decided it's time to give it a try, or whether he's on a manic episode and just thought of this idea a few weeks ago. I do agree with the notion that if you suspect a lot of wise people would question a major decision of yours, you might want to double and triple check it. There's an implication here that being a hip-hop artist is somehow beneath a 40-year-old, and I don't care for that at all. Yes, hip-hop is a young man's game, but there's nothing less dignified about being a hip-hop artist true to his craft than being an accountant true to his. Would Brooks have answered the question differently if the accountant wanted to become a country singer? I hope not. It's not easy for a 40-year-old to hit it big as a new artist in country, either.

2) Let’s say you’re on the phone in a crowded place and you want to tell your buddy a dirty joke, which may offend the people around you. Should you tell it?

Brooks: Then, the question of the dirty joke. This is a question of manners. Here, too, it’s probably a good idea to give priority to other people’s views. The manners and mores of a community are a shared possession. When you violate social norms, you are not only being rude to people around you, but you are making it more likely that others will violate the norms in the future. You are tearing the social fabric.

Me: Mostly agree. We need to know how dirty the joke is, how likely the people nearby are to overhear, and how sensitive they are. A little dirty is probably no big deal, but yeah, don't be that guy. "Tearing the social fabric" is a bit melodramatic, but you are fraying it, so cut that shit out.

3) Let’s say you have religious or political beliefs that make you unpopular. Should you hide or change them?

Brooks: Then the question of the unpopular belief. In this case, it is clearly wrong to sacrifice some of your conviction for immediate popularity. Basically you are trading in something deep for something shallow. Most of our core beliefs originated with some great figure from the distant past. These ideas, creeds or faiths were then nurtured by generations of other people, who are also now mostly dead. They created a transcendent tradition, which we embrace and hope in turn to pass along to generations as yet unborn. No sensible person would ever be happy betraying the approval of the admired dead just to win some passing approval in the here and now.

Me: Hmm. Some religious or political beliefs make one unpopular because they're either poorly thought out or mean-spirited. Brooks employs some high-flown rhetoric here…problem is, while many of the ideas embedded in creeds and faiths of old remain useful today, some of them do not, even to the point of being hurtful. One shouldn't get safe harbor for indefensible beliefs just because they're deeply held or have a tradition or culture attached to them. Brooks seems to be talking here about only one kind of religious or political stance that could be unpopular - the traditionalist in a room full of people with less traditional views. What about the reverse? My religious and political opinions (I'm not very traditional) would make me unpopular in certain rooms, but I come by those opinions just as honestly as the traditionalists he's talking about have. Would Brooks stick up for me here, too? But I'd agree with him in the sense that we should be true to ourselves and not give up deeply considered opinions for shallow reasons.

4) Let’s say you are deeply in love with a person your friends dislike. Should you dump that person?

Brooks: Finally, the question of the unpopular fiancé. This is tricky because it depends on what kind of feedback other people are offering. If they are talking about your boyfriend’s status (he’s too ugly; he’s got a bad job) then outside opinion doesn’t matter. But they may be observing something about the internal nature of your relationship that you are too blinded by passion to see. Maybe they can discern that he hurts you in this way or that. In this case, outside advice is not about approval; it’s about wisdom at a time when your emotions are clouding your judgment.

Me: Can't imagine anyone else's answer to this would be very different. Few things are worse than seeing a friend or loved one unable to walk away from someone who's mistreating them, and it happens all too often. It's a sickness. But as long as the person you're in love with is respecting you and treating you right, yeah, other people's penny-ante observations shouldn't matter in the least.

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